Give It Up For The Great British Eccentrics

From a man dressed as an owl to another with a birdcage on his head, the Great British Eccentric Awards were as colourful as ever. But with some surprising winners, is it time to update our definition of eccentric?
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From a man dressed as an owl to another with a birdcage on his head, the Great British Eccentric Awards were as colourful as ever. But with some surprising winners, is it time to update our definition of eccentric?

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Despite its typically salubrious setting in Mayfair’s famous Saville Club, last week’s Greatest British Eccentric of the Year 2012 was an awards ceremony like no other.

Guests included both a man dressed as an owl and someone with a birdcage over their head, as well as the usual aged aristocrats that we traditionally associate with the curiously British notion of eccentricity.

The award winners, however, suggested that our view of what constitutes individuality and eccentricity has begun to change.

The recipient of the ‘Most Eccentric Inventor 2012’ was Sarah Angliss, a credible musician whose band Moondog play ethereal, idiosyncratic pop music akin to Kate Bush.

Previous recipients include a man that dresses as a baked bean

Admittedly her eccentricity-levels are raised somewhat by the fact that her band features robots that Angliss herself has built, but she still appears to be a thoroughly modern (and more practical) winner, particularly given that previous recipients include a man that dresses as a baked bean (Captain Beany, from the planet Beanus), and Lyndon Yorke, whose claim to fame was building the world’s first amphibious electric wickerwork bathchair.

The overall winner of the ‘Greatest British Eccentric 2012’ seemed an even more modern choice. Professor Elemental combines a tea-obsessed Victorian persona with contemporary hip hop beats.

Paul Arborough is the man behind the ‘chap hop’ legend. Ostensibly a comedian, Arlborough created the character for a Victorian-themed variety show, finding immediate success.

“Almost as soon as I had strapped on the pith helmet for the first time, I realised that I had found my voice as a performer”, he explains.

Both Paul Arlborough and Sarah Angliss are talented, young performers with solid internet fanbases. Indeed, Professor Elemental light-heartedly suggests that he was nominated for the award due to the diligent Twitter campaigning of his fans.

Hew Kennedy built a medieval trebuchet so that he could launch dead cows and cars across his estate

Traditionally, British eccentrics have tended to be male, wealthy and individualistic. Henry Hemming, who wrote the 2008 book In Search of the English Eccentric, and indeed featured as a judge in the 2009 awards (when Beany beamed down from Beanus to collect his award), talks of “hermit-like solipsism” being a trait of many eccentrics.

Hemmings’ book found the author seeking to find contemporary examples of the accepted English Eccentric. His journey featured the likes of Sue Woodcock, an ex-policewoman that now lived alone in a sheep-pen in the Yorkshire Dales, and Hew Kennedy, who built a medieval trebuchet so that he could launch dead cows and cars (among other random objects) across his estate.

Hemming’s finds were people that had to varying degrees withdrawn themselves from ‘normal’ society in order to live by their own rules. Hemming believed that the internet, and the way in which it is used to share ideas and form collectives, was anathema to traditional eccentricity.

I ask Hemming whether, in light of the winners of this year’s major awards, and the role their fanbases played in their nominations, whether his view on the relationship between the internet and eccentricity has changed.

“What's so interesting about this side of things is the way it echoes the Victorian relationship with eccentricity when people generally preferred to learn about eccentrics in books rather than meet them in the flesh”, Hemming explains.

The Internet allows you to find out about an eccentric and enjoy everything they appear to represent

Hemming believes the modern eccentric to be more accessible thanks to the internet. He explained: “The Internet allows you to find out about an eccentric and enjoy everything they appear to represent without forcing you to get up close and personal. The eccentric is caged, ever so slightly”, agrees Hemming. “Think of it as armchair eccentric-watching, which seems to be how most of us like to watch our eccentrics.”

Hemming maintains, however, that the accessibility of our internet icons is not without its downsides.

“[The] Internet can make an eccentric's behaviour more 'knowing', more self-aware, and before you know it you've got people behaving in certain ways in order to be called eccentric.”

The internet has undoubtedly allowed groups of like-minded individuals an opportunity to share their interest in seemingly mundane or trivial pastimes. Online Appreciation Societies are a recent phenomenon, celebrating the likes of electricity pylons, pork pies and apostrophes.

My personal favourite, however, remains UKRAS (the U.K. Round-a-bout Appreciation Society).

Kevin Beresford, UKRAS president and self-proclaimed “Lord of the Rings”, explains the appeal of what to most appear to be drab concrete circles.

“They lift our sagging spirits on long tiresome journeys. I view them as an oasis on a sea of asphalt.”

French aristocratic rappers look like cracking the mainstream anytime soon

Beresford continues his passionate defence of his love for round-a-bouts by likening it to the way in which artists such as Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol made the mundane iconic.

UKRAS was the subject of a documentary, The Roundabouteers, which followed Beresford and his fellow members around their typical haunts. In it, Beresford states unequivocally that his favourite round-a-bouts are in France.

However, France does not appear to have a round-a-bout appreciation society. Nor do any French aristocratic rappers look like cracking the mainstream anytime soon. I ask Henry Hemming for his opinion on why England seems to have such a unique history of embracing the odd.

The modern eccentric is nothing if not entrepreneurial

“Some people have argued that the roots of all this can be found in the English weather, the landscape, or the fact that we live on an island”, he says.

While Hemming believes these factors to play a role in our sustained love of non-conformity, he states that its roots are predominantly found I the political and religious history of the 16th and 17th centuries.

“It was only as we began to move around much more, as religious tolerance changed and as we developed a suspicion of pretension and pomposity that you end up in a place where the idea of 'the eccentric' can come into existence.”

Though our idea of what constitutes oddness or eccentricity is evolving over time, our collective mistrust of pomposity remains steadfast.

Perhaps our contemporary eccentrics are more knowing than their predecessors. It is undeniable that both Elemental and Sarah Angliss have forged careers from their idiosyncrasies, while Kevin Beresford has found success with myriad round-a-bout related merchandise. The modern eccentric is nothing if not entrepreneurial.

However, that we still produce such characters should be celebrated. Elemental puts his success down to “[m]aking silly music during a time when there is too much seriousness around”. By making people smile during a time of hardship he is continuing a great British tradition. By attending his gigs, or buying a UKRAS ‘Round-a-bouts of Great Britain’ calendar, you too are helping this tradition evolve and survive.

You can find out more about Professor Elemental here... and more about the Eccentric Club here...

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